Skip to main content

Three years ago, Bethany Butzer left London, Ont., for her dream job, researching at Harvard Medical School the effectiveness of yoga when added to physical education classes for youngsters. For a yoga and wellness instructor with a PhD in psychology, it brought together two vital streams in her life at an esteemed educational institution.

These days, she's away from that world, spending time with her husband in a remote cabin near Manitoulin Island, part of a two-month sabbatical and a sharp break from her recent life, started without any sense of where the sojourn would lead. It was an act of courage that most of us would avoid.

The reaction from some has been stunned disbelief. Give up Harvard? Two months without income? No idea of what you will do next? Why? Why? Why?

Her initial answer was insufficient for most: Because she felt like it. "I'm leaving because the deepest part within me – the part that feels instead of overanalyzing – is telling me that I need to unplug for a while and spend some time in nature. I don't know if I will emerge from this work-life sabbatical with any enlightened wisdom or a new sense of meaning about my life. All I know is that this is what I need to do. Because I feel like it," she wrote on her blog.

The situation reminded her of Janice MacLeod-Lik, author of Paris Letters, who, when asked why she and her husband were moving from Paris to Calgary after years building her dream of being an artist in France, replied, "I'm still not exactly sure except that we felt like it, which seems good enough for us and not good enough for whoever is asking."

Ms. Butzer was immersed in meaningful and inspiring work. But she was also toiling from 9 to 5 in a windowless office and spending several hours in the evening on the computer for her wellness blog. "I was on the computer 12 hours a day. I longed to be in nature and freer," she said in an interview.

Harvard was a competitive environment, with researchers having to fight for money to fund their work through grants. Her husband noticed she was burning out. She was sensing it.

Previously, she'd given up work in an organization she also found deadening to follow her heart and hang up her wellness shingle. It worked out, leading to the contacts that opened up the door to Harvard. Most of us fear following our heart. She felt it was time to try that approach again.

"I wasn't thriving in my life the way I should be," she said. "Having a boss and work is stable but can be stifling. Working for yourself can be challenging yet provide freedom." But it was a hard leap of faith because she tends to be a very logical person, and this wasn't logical or linear. It wasn't easy to explain it to herself, let alone others.

Her husband's work is virtual, so when she suggested two months in the wilderness, once he found out there was an Internet connection, he was in. And knowing she didn't want to be high and dry in August, she began looking for projects to sustain her. That's a key part of her message: If you follow your heart, you don't know what lustrous opportunities it will open up. In their case, it drew an offer for her to teach a course on positive psychology at the University of New York in Prague. Her husband is Czech. He has family in Prague. So they'll move there in August for a period, during which she will also tackle some other consulting gigs that have already arisen. "We value nature and the outdoors. We enjoy culture. This gives us the best of both worlds," she said.

Should you consider a big break? Ms. Butzer certainly recommends taking a sabbatical, but it need not be as long nor as dramatic as hers, leaving a job and giving up her home. She had enough money to fund two months without income. Figure out what you can afford.

She feels the universe was preparing her for this because in her move to Boston, she sold her home in London and decided to live in an apartment, paying off debt. She gave up a car, again cutting a financial burden. She doesn't buy a lot of fancy clothes or expensive things. As she put it in her blog: Fewer responsibilities + more money in the bank = more freedom. She suggests simplifying your life and downsizing. Also, trust yourself. "In the end, you need to spend some quality time with you. What do you want your life to look like? How do you want to feel? No one else can answer these questions for you. If your heart is telling you to spend two months in the woods, then that's what you need to do," she wrote.

Her cabin is small, about 450 square feet. She has vowed not to use an alarm clock, and finds herself averaging 10 hours of sleep. Her husband works mornings while she reads on the porch or does yoga. She'll make lunch and then they'll hike or she'll join him when he goes fishing. After dinner, they'll relax on the porch, and when darkness arrives, there's not much to do beyond heading to sleep. She finds herself enjoying cooking and cleaning dishes, realizing that she was always in a rush carrying out those tasks and didn't value them. "We can all take time for ourselves. It doesn't have to be two months. It can be one hour or half a day. But you have to value it," she said.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter.